News Stories

The Public Radio Hour presents: Reveal's American Rehab

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

WLRH is excited to bring you Reveal’s American Rehab. A 6-part series on The Public Radio Hour that exposes how a treatment for drug addiction has turned tens of thousands of people into an unpaid shadow workforce.

In 1960s California, a cult leader mesmerized America by claiming to have discovered the cure for heroin addiction. His rehab ran on punishment and profits, putting participants to work and generating millions from their free labor. A new system of rehab was born. Over the decades the model would be hailed by an American president and endorsed by judges across the country. Today these rehabs are flourishing by turning people desperate for treatment into an unpaid labor force. As the opioid epidemic rages on, Reveal uncovers tens of thousands of people each year trapped in the gears of this rehab machine.

American Rehab will air each Thursday at 7pm on 89.3 FM/HD1 on The Public Radio Hour starting on January 14th and culminating on February 18th. Episode schedule and synopsis are below. You can also read the investigation and check out additonal resources from Reveal.  

American Rehab 1: A Desperate Call

In Episode 1, we meet Penny Rawlings, who is relieved to get her brother into drug rehab at a place called Cenikor. She doesn’t realize that getting him out of treatment is going to be the bigger problem.

Cenikor’s model has its roots in Synanon: a revolutionary, first-of-its-kind rehab that started in the 1950s on a California beach. Its charismatic leader, Charles Dederich, mesmerized the nation by claiming to have developed a cure for drug addiction. But as it spread across the country, Dederich wanted the rehab to turn into something else: a business.

American Rehab 2: A Venomous Snake

By the end of the 1960s, Synanon was a widely respected drug rehab with a celebrated treatment program. It had intake centers and commune-style rehabs all over the country. 

It subsisted by turning members into unpaid workers who hustled donations and ran Synanon businesses. As the money poured in, Synanon’s founder, Charles Dederich, transitioned the group from a rehab into an “experimental society.”  

Dederich instituted a series of increasingly authoritarian rules on members: He banned sugar, dissolved marriages, separated children from their parents and forced vasectomies. Synanon ultimately became a religion, with Dederich as its violent and vengeful leader.
Synanon descended into madness. But before it crumbled, the group inspired an entire generation of rehabs. By one researcher’s count in the 1970s, there were 500 programs in the United States stemming from Synanon. Many of those rehabs still exist today, including Cenikor.

American Rehab 3: Cowboy Conman

He was a liar, a killer and a wannabe country music singer. As Luke Austin moved from state to state and prison to prison, he created a persona. He claimed to have toured with Johnny Cash and made personal friends with Elvis Presley. By the early ’60s, he’d killed a man and joined a Synanon chapter inside the Nevada State Prison. 

Then in 1967, inside another prison, Austin created his own authoritarian rehab system modeled on Synanon and changed its name to Cenikor.
Reveal’s Laura Starecheski unravels the secret history of Cenikor and how Austin’s dream of country music stardom nearly destroyed what would later become one of the largest work-based rehabs in the country.

American Rehab 4: Reagan with the Snap

In the late 1970s, the drug rehab Cenikor was down and out. Founder Luke Austin had siphoned off almost all the program’s money, and participants were left eating cornmeal mush and green Jell-O to survive. 

Reporters Laura Starecheski and Shoshana Walter explain how Ken Barun, a former rehab participant, brought Cenikor back from the brink, with the help of NFL football pad inventor Byron Donzis.

Cenikor’s rehab workers started manufacturing the football pads, for no pay, and eventually would supply every single team in the NFL. During a 1983 campaign stop, this boot-strapping rehab caught the attention of President Ronald Reagan, who gave Cenikor his blessing. 

And later, when Reagan’s harsh drug enforcement policies filled jails and prisons with people who used drugs, a prison-to-rehab pipeline was born. 

Today, judges across the U.S. order people to attend work-based rehabs like Cenikor, where rehab participants are then put to work without pay. At Cenikor’s facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, unpaid workers are shuttled to work at local businesses and national corporations. We track down this shadow workforce.

American Rehab 5: The Work Cure

One man’s journey into Cenikor leads to punishments and almost two years of backbreaking labor. The program will change him. But can it help Chris Koon put his addiction behind him?

Koon chose Cenikor as an alternative to jail and a way to deal with his addiction to heroin. But when he walked through the doors of the treatment facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Koon found himself in a strange world of elaborate rules and humiliating punishments. After an orientation, he was loaded into a van and sent out to work. He did dangerous work like climbing scaffolding high in the air and moving metal beams that weighed hundreds of pounds.  

When he was injured, Koon says Cenikor persuaded him to go back to work instead of getting an MRI. 

The counseling Koon was promised was hard to come by. He worked such long hours that Cenikor counselors could barely find time for sessions. Ultimately, after 18 months of unpaid labor, Koon was asked to leave and had to face recovery on his own

So do the punishments and what Cenikor calls “work therapy” actually help? We talked to Dr. Sarah Wakeman, who specializes in addiction treatment, to find out. 

American Rehab 6: Shadow Workforce

Since beginning this series, listeners have asked if rehabs are allowed to do this. Can they make participants work without pay as long as they’re providing housing and treatment? Does the work pay for the therapy? 

This question was raised by another cultish organization that recruited dropouts from the hippie movement and had them sew bedazzled designer jean jackets. The clothes became a Hollywood fashion trend, and the unpaid labor propelled a case all the way to the Supreme Court. 

There’s one other question that has driven our reporting from the beginning. How big is this? How many work-based rehabs operate across the country? The federal government doesn’t track them, and no one knew how many were out there. So reporter Shoshona Walter spent a year counting them herself, and she learned that they’re all around us.

Finally, the coronavirus pandemic has made the opioid epidemic even more deadly. As one crisis slams into another, we look at how work-based rehabs are turning participants into unpaid essential workers.

Illustrations, logo and art by Eren K. Wilson



WLRH Public Radio
UAH Campus
John Wright Drive
Huntsville, AL 35899

Get Directions


(256) 895-9574

(800) 239-9574